With a presidential election just four months away — and the country in turmoil over the recent tragedies in Dallas, Minnesota and Baton Rouge — I’ve been watching our leaders with interest. My colleagues and I have been looking closely at leadership styles, in particular the abrasive and sometimes cruel techniques of managers like Steve Jobs, Martha Stewart and Donald Trump.
We were curious about the difference between a style perceived as abusive and one that’s considered motivating. Abusive leaders are ones yell at others, those who are verbally hostile, demeaning and punishing towards those they lead (e.g. "you idiot"). Those leaders who are master motivators may also yell, but the focus of their yelling is on bringing out the best in others. Abusive leaders attack the person while master motivators focus on accomplishing the task, achieving excellence through individual and group efforts.
Leaders are “signal senders.” In both their words and actions, they signal direction, vision, the need for cooperation. But leaders also signal their emotions. Are they calm, are they angry, are they empathetic, can they “feel your pain”?
In the aftermath of the Dallas killings of police officers, Chief David Brown, who has known personally the pain of gun violence, conveyed a sense of calm and strength, grounded in his experience and his faith. But he also communicated urgency that violence between police and citizens must end. There was a forcefulness in his words and actions — even though he was calm. These are uncertain, even volatile, times, and many Americans are anxious and angry. A leader must signal to people that their emotions are recognized and seen as legitimate, without escalating the tension. The issue is not either/or — not calm or anger — but “and.”
If leaders do not convey the appropriate signals to fit the times, they will lose the trust and support of their followers. Donald Trump leans toward sending strong signals about his emotions and the need for action. He is consistent and powerful in sending those signals, using words like "I am the law-and-order candidate," and "Anti-police hostility must end." While he delivered those words in a calm manner, he was definitive in pronouncing those statements, using his body language to affirm commitment and seriousness.
Secretary Clinton, on the other hand, sends signals about the need for calm, staying focused on change for a better future for America. She uses phrases like "the growth-and-fairness economy" that is needed to "raise incomes" and "middle class wages." She uses words like "support our police" while "developing police reforms to support innocent Americans who have encounters with police." And she delivers those words with a seriousness and a calmness reflecting the situation.
Each of them can modify their signals to fit the current mood. Trump would benefit from adding “calmer” signals to his style; Clinton would benefit from adding signals that conveyed that she understands the feelings of people, that she cares. Several polls suggest that people feel Trump understands and cares more about them and their situation. Clinton may need stronger “signals” to connect with people. Leadership is about making an emotional connection with the people you want to lead.
It is not simple to say are you “abusive” or “inspirational”—for all leaders have elements of both inside of them, almost a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde effect. Part of the reason for Trump’s success is his consistency and perceived authenticity—what you see is who he is. Whether you like him or not, he is a compelling and complex individual who can be seen as an abusive leader by some, but as a master motivator by others. His comments about race, religion and ethnicity, and about women, are perceived as abusive by many, but there is also an element of motivation in his campaign with slogans such as, “Make America Great Again.”
Suggesting that Trump pivot to a more “presidential” demeanor would only undermine his perceived authenticity. But he needs to add those signals conveying calm and reasonableness to win a general election. In these times of social and racial unrest, with the accompanying anger, fears, and anxiety, more calm is needed. But at the same time, channeling the anger to create the necessary sense of urgency—that something needs to be done—is also needed.
Police Chief David Brown of Dallas demonstrated how to do that so well and in the moment. The same will be expected of President Obama at the Dallas memorial service. The president is a gifted leader, one who can speak to people in difficult and tragic times as he did after the killings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. He will not either/or; he will “and.” He has to respond to the sense of injustice and pain that people are feeling about the police killings of African Americans and also to the anger and pain — and sense of civic disorder—that follow the brutal killings of police officers. It's a balancing act, but one that all effective leaders must master.
Robert J. Bies is a professor of management and founder of the Executive Master’s in Leadership Program at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. In a new book, High Performance Work Practices or Abusive Supervision: Where is the Boundary?, Bies co-authored a chapter titled, “Abusive Leaders or Master Motivators? ‘Abusive is in the Eye of the Beholder.”